To begin 2016, think about the end

During the autumn, I wrote a series of short commentaries on the Nicene (Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed. The final installment is for this Sunday, and focuses on the very last line of the creed: death, resurrection and new life. As this week began (for me) with an op-ed article about death (see below) and has seen the deaths of two talented and justly celebrated men, some reflection on this part of the creed seemed quite timely.

The creed concludes by directing our attention to our own end: we ‘look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Maybe by the time we get to the last line, our attention has moved on to the next part of the Mass, or even to what’s for Sunday lunch. Or maybe the repetition week by week has dulled our perception of its oddity. The resurrection of the dead? The life of the world to come? However often we say these things, and however much we might know about the Church’s teaching on resurrection and new life, the future remains ultimately mysterious: we believe, but we do not grasp these things.

Yet remembering our end is of critical importance: even the New York Times advises us to do so. In a recent article Arthur Brooks* advised readers to bear their death in mind in order to live a more fulfilling life. (This week our mortality has been brought into incredibly sharp focus, too, by the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.) Rather than making us more gloomy, he says, remembering the transitory nature of our life heightens our capacity for humour and joy. Not only that: Brooks suggests that concentrating on the ‘scarcity of time’ can help us to choose our pastimes more consciously, focusing on those things that bring real satisfaction (and those listed include prayer and worship) over those that merely distract us.

The op-ed section isn’t the place I would usually turn for spiritual guidance. In this case, though, Brooks points to something we ought to know: that growth in our spiritual life requires a form of attention that directs us to our ultimate end. For his readers, death is the end. We look forward to something else: the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Contemplating this mystery forms a crucial part of the practice of Christian life, and bathes our ordinary experience in everlasting light.

 

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Mind control

A few years ago, I was in the habit of reading the newspaper at the weekend. One of the UK papers ran a column-of-sorts in its weekly newsmagazine, featuring brief interviews with well-known people. Many of them I had never heard of before reading about their first kiss, their biggest accomplishment, their most treasured possession, and the like. The questions were not always the same, but one that recurred frequently was, ‘What would your superpower be?’

It just so happened that during that same stretch of time in which I was reading the paper regularly (or at least the weekend magazine–I make no pretensions to being interested in news in general), I was also engaged in a struggle against some darkness in my own life. It was ugly, and I never want to go there again. I really thought that if only I could get a person or two to come round to my way of thinking, the darkness would recede a little. Maybe even a lot. So my answer to the question, ‘what would your superpower be?’ came without any hesitation: mind control.

What foolishness, you think, and of course you’re right. But at the time (and you know how these things are), it seemed like a reasonable solution to the problem. Impossible, but otherwise perfect. Usually the superpowers identified by the folks in the interviews fit into the usual range: flying, invisibility, and that sort of thing. One day, though, I was brought up short by something completely different: to make people’s dreams come true. In other words, this interviewee wanted the ability to bring contentment to the lives of others.

Suddenly my own desire seemed vulgar and selfish, which of course it was. Probably not at exactly the same moment, but as a part of the same general process, I realized that the mind over which I most needed control was my own. I modified my desired superpower just a little: ‘mind control–starting with my own.’

Years passed. A couple of months ago, I was talking with my 11-year-old son, and the topic of abilities came up–not exactly superpowers, but astonishing abilities that might or might not be possible. I suppose it is a sign of my continued self-centredness than I can’t recall my son’s idea for a helpful power. But I do remember the very first thing that came to my mind: ‘perfect self-control.’ Though I hadn’t thought about superpowers in quite a long time, I remembered at once the struggle I’d had, and my old desire to manipulate others’ thoughts.

Somehow, in the intervening years, I had acquired a measure of the mind control I sought. Not perfect control, of course, but at least the desire for it. In my world now, distractions and vexations tug at me, and the darkness lies in anger and despair–when I lose my temper or find myself wanting the success or gifts of another. I would love to have the ability to resist the distraction and bear the vexation, to carry on with my mind fixed where it ought to be: on the road ahead, a road I think of as the path of discipleship.

I don’t have that ability. Not yet. Probably I will never have it perfectly. To desire it, though, seems the next best thing, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Deo gratias.

the interruptions

It would be wrong to think that the interruptions have no bearing on what happens between them. The interruptions make the ‘between’ fruitful. I have, of course, heard the saying about the person trying to work and constantly being interrupted, only to find that the work was the interruptions. And that’s wise, as far as it goes. But somebody had to have a moment, between those interruptions, to think that, and to write it down.

That’s the purpose of my “between”: to stop long enough to think, and to write things down. I know without a doubt that the possibility of spiritual growth for me lies not in the quiet but in persevering despite the noise, confusion and vexations of daily life with children. Being with my children in all the occupations of our life together forces me to go slowly, to place someone else’s experience at the center of my attention. This does not come naturally to me. Not remotely.

So of course sometimes the vexations have the upper hand, and I am what CS Lewis (we’re listening to The Silver Chair now) might call “out of temper.” Fortunately there are small mercies–the children’s simple love, when it comes to the surface, a moment of quiet, a day or two on retreat (oh, heaven!), or an email from a friend (reminding me of God’s constant presence). And in conversation and in stillness, there’s time for a tiny bit of reflection. That’s what happens between the interruptions.

The relentless chaos of life with children and the priceless moments of quiet between their demands for attention form two parts of a whole. I can’t say I always value the chaotic side–hence calling it “the interruptions.” But the fact of the matter is that the ‘between’ would have little meaning without the work of parenting, which requires a form of attention that usually precludes reflection. If I am not fully present with the children, they know it. Something as simple as brushing my 3-year-old’s teeth requires my full attention. (Nursing a baby, especially one’s third or fourth, might just be the exception: I planned two book-length projects while nursing my third child.)

When I stop to think, or to write, I find that the my faith is formed in that crucible, not in the quiet. The small and insignificant things, the merely annoying and not-at-all-grand forbearances are like sandpaper buffing my hope and love, painfully. Moments of solace and reflection are gentle like a polishing cloth, clearing a surface here and there, and allowing me to see the One whose shining face is always there, in my children and in me, who is the Love that holds us together in the interruptions and between them.